After staying in Ubud for just over a week we got the boat over to Gili Air for a few nights and then over to Lombok for a few more. Our days in both these places were mostly the same, good but same-y so I won't bother describing each day individually, instead just summarising our experience of each place.
We'd heard about the Gili islands from various sources and as we didn't really know where to go after Ubud we thought we'd give them a try. If you've not heard of them before here's a bit of background: Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air are three tiny islands off the north west coast of Lombok. They have no proper roads and no cars. People mostly get around by cycling, walking or in horse drawn carts though there are a few electric scooters around too.
We visited Gili Air based on the descriptions of each of the islands we found online; Gili Trawangan is the party island, Gili Meno is the super quiet island and Gili Air is somewhere in between.
As we waited at the harbour on Bali Nikki grew increasingly nervous about the size and state of the boat that would arrive to take us to Gili Air. As it turned out the boat was large and modern and we made it to the first Gili island with ease. The boat dropped off passengers for Gili T straight onto the beach and picked up new ones to take to other stops along the route. At this point Nikki considered taking her shoes off but when the boat got to Gili Air we weren't dropped off on the beach, or a jetty. We had to transfer to another smaller boat in the middle of the sea!
Safely on board our new boat it took us to the small jetty on Gili Air and we stepped off and back about 100 years. Seeing no other transport than bicycles and horse drawn carts makes you feel like you're in a different era but the mini markets and bars bring you right back.
The roads are dusty, narrow and bumpy but the island is so small you can easily walk everywhere so the state of the roads doesn't matter. We walked up the 'main road' to find our accommodation, it took about 20 minutes to cross two thirds of the island and find our wooden bungalow. We followed small signs and for the last 100 meters a guy on a bike across a dusty field, who we later found out was part of the family that owned the bungalow.
Gili Air is tiny; it took us an hour and a half to walk around the whole island on the beach and it takes about 20 minutes to cross in any direction. For us this was perfect because it meant that while there wasn't as much to do as other places we'd visited we could walk everywhere and not miss out because we don't have a scooter.
There are some very nice places to eat on Gili Air and we tried many of them;
- Mexican Kitchen — solid Mexican food with cool views over the beach
- Ruby's — good mains, really nice chocolate sausage dessert
- Good Earth Cafe — at H20 yoga, we weren't impressed by this
- Pachamama — Tasty food in a cool setting
- Warung Sunny — Super friendly owner and very tasty burritos
- Le Bistro — unexpectedly below average service but the food was okay
- Mowies — nice food but the main attraction here is the location and the vibe for watching the sunset
- The Waterfront — part of Manta dive, I had a good burger here
There isn't much to do on Gili Air unless you're into diving or snorkelling. There's a couple of places that offer yoga, we tried H20 and enjoyed a vinyasa session.
We spent most of our time on Gili Air just exploring and eating but the island is only so big and as much as I'd grown to like the place, I started to want to do something else. So with no prior thought we went to Manta dive on the east of the island and I booked onto a one day dive course! Nikki went and booked herself a massage and a manicure & pedicure while I would be diving.
At 9am the next day I arrived and after watching a short safety video and a brief explanatory talk we got kitted up with our scuba gear and got in the pool. I hadn't even had time to think about this yet, having only even thought about it the day before and now I was about to learn how to dive! Our instructor, Hanoman, signalled that we should kneel down and have our first experience of breathing underwater. Not many things phase me but I can tell you my heart was beating quite fast at that point with all this gear strapped to me and the thought of going diving.
Under I went, my head only about 30 centimetres below the surface. I paused, initially falling back on the general knowledge that you can't breathe underwater. It took me a second or two to remember that I had this thing in my mouth that meant I could. I took a tentative breath, expecting it to be clumsy or hard to breathe through the regulator but the air came exactly as your breathing dictated. A small wave of relief washed over me but was cut short by water creeping into to my mask and the feeling of it going up my nose.
I hate water going up my nose and it makes me cough and splutter so my heart sunk as I stood up out of the water to clear my mask and I ran through the scenario of water going up my nose 10 meters down and me freaking out. I thought that was my diving career over, before it had even begun.
Hanoman surfaced shortly after me and asked what was wrong, I explained and expected him to say if you can't handle water up your nose you can't dive. Instead he just said if you need to cough you can cough through the regulator as normal and just blow the water out of your nose, simple.
He then went on to a series of exercises, including how to get rid of water from your mask and how to get your regulator back if you lose it which was a bit scary until I remembered that we were in the shallow end of a pool and I've been in pools before without scuba gear!
We progressed to the deep end and Hanoman explained that it was important to keep breathing in order to equalise the pressure differences as you descend and ascend. He also explained how and why you need to 'pop' your ears to equalise the pressure in them like you would on an aeroplane.
After a few minutes in the deep end playing frisbee everything clicked and I started to enjoy myself. I followed Hanoman's lead and started to flip and cartwheel underwater, enjoying the feeling of weightlessness.
We ran through some final exercises then got out and had some food before getting the boat to our dive site. After a short journey the other, more experienced, groups set off and Hanoman told us to kit up and sit on the side of the boat and shuffle back. Again, at this point I was thinking 'what the hell am I doing?' as I leant back and plunged backward into the water.
I quickly bobbed back up, my scuba gear acting as a buoyancy aid and we grouped up a little way from the boat. Hanoman explained that we'd take it super easy and our dive time would be about 45 minutes. We put our masks on and deflated our jackets.
As soon as my head was underwater I could see a totally different world. I was absolutely stunned, momentarily dumbstruck by the clearness of the water and the life I could see around me. I blinked and expected it all to disappear, or for David Attenborough to resume his narration. I looked around me and down at myself and saw that no, this wasn't Blue Planet, this was real.
I scanned for the others and we swam along our route at a casual pace, with Hanoman pointing out various fish along the way. I looked at everything and everywhere with wide eyes, eager to take it all in. I looked to my side and saw another diver next to me, in almost hyper real detail caused by the strong sunlight in the super clear water. I watched him swim in real time slow mo like divers do and remembered again that I wasn't watching this on TV, I was diving too! I laughed to myself and barrel rolled through the water as I propelled myself forward with my fins.
We continued like this for a while, with Hanoman pointing out things and me looking around in awe until we reached our maximum depth for this dive of about 10-11 meters. I swam over some more beautifully coloured fish and followed them with my eyes until I'd completely passed over them, I looked back in front of me to see Hanoman making the signal for turtle. My stomach flipped and I felt my heart beat quicken. A turtle! But I couldn't see it. I followed the line of Hanomans arm and saw it, well camouflaged less than 10 meters away.
I couldn't believe it. I sat (or at least it felt like it, neutral buoyancy is amazing), motionless, watching as it nipped at the sea grass. The others had looked and swam on but I couldn't stop staring. I knew it wasn't the same type of turtle we'd worked with at Archelon but it was close. To be able to see a healthy adult turtle just doing its thing was amazing. It really made me feel proud of all the work Nikki and I had done with Archelon. I floated there for what felt like minutes, looking through my floating limbs, framing the turtle in front of me before I snapped out of my reverie and realised I should find the others.
They hadn't got far and I soon caught up. The rest of the dive was utterly amazing but nothing topped seeing that first turtle. All too soon our instructor started our ascent to the surface and inflated a marker buoy and I knew our dive was nearly over. Forty five minutes had felt like ten and I was sad to leave the new world I'd experienced behind; the amazing underwater landscape, the wonderful life and the feeling of flying.
I'm so glad that I'd decided to try diving and very thankful to Hanoman and Manta Dive for making it such an amazing experience from start to finish.
The evening after my dive we went for dinner at Mowie's and had a last minute surprise as the sun lit up the cloud just before it dipped below the horizon. It had, up until that point been thick cloud cover with no promise of any kind of interesting sunset.
We were due to leave the next morning but decided to find our hosts and ask them if we could stay another night so that we could go snorkelling and I could try and show Nikki some of the amazing things I'd seen during my dive. We left it very last minute because we couldn't find the main guy, only asking less than an hour before we were meant to check out! We asked his wife who was totally confused and repeated the phrase 'one more night' to her husband on the phone in amongst a string of Indonesian. She came over and passed the phone to me and the guy was like 'oh, one more night, yes sure'.
After that confusing experience we went to find some snorkel gear to rent. We turned up before most places were open, partly to beat the crowds (though there really aren't enough people on Gili Air to really make a crowd) and partly because I thought it would be easier to snorkel with more water between us and the coral and high tide was at 7:30am so we got to the beach at around 9am. We found a place to rent gear from (anywhere will do) and with some trepidation Nikki put on her fins and mask and we got into the water.
After getting used to walking around with the fins on and dipping her head below the water a few times while standing we progressed to swimming in the shallow water. I wasn't expecting to see so many fish so close to the shore, we probably saw just as much as I did during my dive. Both in number and in diversity! I was stunned all over again and what we could see. I heard screams of delight next to me as Nikki saw different fish for the first time.
We swam further out, but still only around 200-300 meters from the beach and I spotted what looked like a turtle. I did a double take and then signalled to Nikki, it took her a while to spot it but when I heard a little squeal I knew she had! About 15 metres away, nipping at the sea grass was another green turtle. I was grateful in that moment that we'd come out early and were the only ones around, it made the experience even more special.
We went back into the water again after lunch in a different location and saw even more fish. It really doesn't matter where you go to snorkel here, just dip your mask below the surface and give it a couple of seconds and you're almost guaranteed to see something cool.
Gili Air has been my favourite place we've visited so far, partly because of the cool experiences of diving and snorkelling and partly because it's just so different. It's so tiny and there aren't any cars. It has a very remote island feel to it; it has internet but it drops whenever it wants to, it has electricity but we had two power cuts in five days. I loved being able to walk everywhere and seeing the same random people on one side of the island and then again later that day on the other side.
We didn't know where to go after Gili Air, especially as we decided last minute to stay another night. So equally last minute we booked a boat to and accommodation on Lombok.
Our journey off Gili Air started with us waiting at the jetty then being directed away from the jetty because the boat was leaving straight off the beach. The beach being a metre down from the 'road' and with no steps. Once again Nikki regretted wearing shoes for another boat transfer as she got one soggy foot getting onto the boat.
After a short journey we got to mainland Lombok and spotted our transfer company, usually they have a minibus waiting just over the road or just after you step off the boat. Not so with this company, we followed the guy for about 15 minutes to a random building hundreds of meters away from the beach and then with no indication of when we'd be picked up we waited for the minibus we hoped would arrive.
Two hours later it arrived.
Half an hour later we arrived at a very posh hotel just outside Senggigi, having passed some very 'authentic' sights. This included the aftermath of what I assumed to be a market, with organic and non-organic waste strewn all over what might have once been a car park. This was the first real indication that Lombok was not the same as Bali.
The very posh hotel that the driver dropped us off at was, unfortunately, not where we'd booked into but an easily identifiable landmark. Once we'd throughly confused the staff outside we walked off to find our super cheap homestay. By the time we'd reached what essentially amounted to jungle we assumed we'd gone too far and turned around to try a small alleyway that might lead us to Ketut's homestay.
We were expecting basic. We'd paid for basic. What we got was basic. The sink was homemade, formed from god-knows what material. The (cold water) shower was fashioned from bare pipe and came out in one solid stream. The internet had been cut off recently and storage space? That would be the floor.
In moments like this, you question if it was worth saving that extra couple of pounds. Or if it would really be that bad to just quietly backtrack out and book yourself into a nice hotel.
Like the über posh one we ended up trudging to to find food on our first night after we were unable to find Ketut's recommended restaurant in the dark. We walked a kilometre down a busy road and another kilometre down the beach before finally finding a place to eat and decided to ignore the potential cost given that our new accommodation was so cheap.
When we finally arrived back at Ketut's house having had a surprisingly affordable meal, we found Ketut's nephew and another guest playing Rummikub outside so we joined in for a while and we talked about where each other had visited and were planning to visit. We'd mentioned to Ketut earlier in the day that we wanted to go on a tour to see waterfalls so he eagerly rang up his friend and organised a day trip for the next day.
At 8am on our second day in Lombok we got in the car of Ketut's friends, who he assured us spoke English. Which was true, in a sense, but we could understand less than half of what he said. He spoke faster than his accent and fluency really allowed leaving us not knowing whether to nod in agreement or look surprised.
Unknown to us this wasn't simply to be a drive to the waterfalls and back. This became apparent when we pulled up to the place I'd assumed to be a market the previous day. Now in full swing there were people everywhere. The driver dropped us and our guide (he did tell us his name but in his all too fast fashion we didn't understand a word) off and I immediately wanted to run after the van and get back in.
This was not your usual market.
Having successfully weaved our way through the minefield of women selling all kinds of food straight from the floor in the open area at the front we made it to the covered area. I'd like to tell you at this point that things got better, cleaner and easier to navigate but I would be lying.
We'd been to markets before, both ones for tourists and ones for locals like the one Oun took us to for our cooking course in Chiang Mai. The market here though was on a different level.
Walkways were so narrow that two way traffic was difficult and you were forced to squeeze up against the stalls on either side. At one point I had to time my movement so I didn't get sprayed as a woman swung her knife into a chicken carcass. Fish writhed in buckets and no attempt was made to chill meat or keep flies away.
I only realised just how uncomfortable I'd been when we got back in the car and my whole body relaxed. It was an eye opening, but sometimes breath holding, first stop.
From there we drove up into the hills and stopped at the 'monkey forest', which in our case consisted of a lay by just off the road where me and Nikki looked awkwardly at each other wondering how long our guide would make us stand here looking at a few monkeys.
After too long we continued our journey to the waterfalls. Two hours later having passed through many dilapidated villages we arrived at the start point for the walk to the waterfall. Our driver and guide got out and handed us over to a guy in a little room who started explaining about the waterfall. He showed us a price list for a guide and my heart sunk. I'd read online that you don't need a guide for these waterfalls but I didn't want to look like an idiot and refuse a guide only to get lost and come back to our guide without having been to the waterfall. Equally I didn't want to double the cost of our day trip by paying for a guide either. I was so annoyed that neither Ketut or our current guide had mentioned this.
By accident I managed to get the price down to half of what it was, I wasn't trying to barter I was just quietly frustrated at the cost and didn't respond to the guys lowering prices. He must have thought it was a bold technique though because he went to half price without me saying a word.
I begrudgingly accepted his price and soon a guide was taking us to see Sendang Gile and Tiu Kelep waterfalls. A guide that as expected was completely unnecessary, a well made path takes you straight to the first waterfall and only a little bit of common sense is needed to find the second.
They are amazing falls despite the well made paths and rubbish that surround the first waterfall. It started raining on our way to the second waterfall and by the time we got halfway it was pouring down. I'd long since had to put my camera away in my waterproof rucksack and all our clothes were soaked through when we arrived at Tiu Kelep. We needlessly sheltered under a boulder and looked up at the waterfall, now surrounded by a light mist and the rain pouring down. It made for a very atmospheric scene.
Unfortunately the next day Nikki had caught or eaten something that made her very unwell and at dinner we both got worried when she felt very faint, went very pale and was struggling to eat her food. I didn't know she wasn't feeling well until this point and she didn't really know what was wrong either. She struggled to the toilet and I timed her visit, fearing she might collapse but just after I got up to check if she was ok I saw her coming back looking much better. We spent the rest of the evening and the next day in our room, with Nikki very unwell and scared. She improved a little by the evening but still felt quite ill.
This left me to plan and organise the next few days of our trip. I looked into places all over Lombok but read very mixed opinions of everywhere I found. We'd both found Lombok quite a culture shock so far and I eventually decided that we'd just go back to Bali. Ketut booked us a transfer to Canggu and we arrived at the harbour hoping it would be a big reassuring boat like we had on the way to Gili Air.
It was not.
Nikki spent the whole journey trying to ignore the whole experience and concentrate on the book she was reading. I looked out the windows like a kid and watched the waves swell and counted down to when the boat would crash into or roll strongly from side to side over them. Against Nikki's fearful expectations we made it safely to Bali and were soon on our way to Canggu.
As we drove away from the boat that had brought us back to Bali I thought about the differences between our experience of Bali and Lombok. I liken them to brothers, sharing the same general geographical features, brought up in the same place by the same country. But one of them was an A grade student and went to university, while the other got chucked out of school and struggles to find work. Bali is the safe choice, with just enough roughness around the edges to be charmingly 'foreign', while Lombok is all about the rough edges.
Gili Air has been my favourite place on our trip so far and we were both glad that we were able to just book another night there. Lombok was the biggest culture shock I've had so far, even though we'd already been in South East Asia for over a month and in Indonesia for two weeks.
The same things are true for all these places though; don't expect to get there in the time Google Maps suggests and be prepared to have your comfort zone tested.